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Fukushima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl:

Putting It All In Perspective

by NPR Staff

The situation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi facility is prompting many comparisons to the two
prior crises that have become cultural touchstones for what can go wrong at a nuclear power
plant: Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

See how the disasters compare.

Disaster Problem What Happened To The Core Exposure

Three Mile Island A failure involving

Date: March 28, 1979 the water pumps
Place: Near Harrisburg, Pa. allowed pressure to
The nuclear fuel rods
build up inside the
inside the reactor
reactor core; in Experts say the
experienced a partial
response, a relief resulting radiation
meltdown —
valve automatically exposure was never
meaning some of
opened. But it failed enough to cause a
them overheated and
to close again — and detectable health
melted. However, the
cooling water escaped effect in the general
radioactive material
the reactor. population.
never escaped the
Meanwhile, operators
containment vessel.
at the plant didn't get
the signal that the
AP valve was still open.

Chernobyl Operators were The core hadn’t been At least 5 percent

Date: April 26, 1986 performing a test to shut down prior to of the radioactive
Place: About 80 miles north of see how the reactor the test. The power reactor core was
Kiev, Ukraine would fare in case of surge triggered released into the
electrical failure, events that sent the atmosphere. Two
when a design flaw in nuclear reaction out Chernobyl plant
the reactor caused a of control — causing workers died on the
dramatic power surge. two explosions. The night of the
reactor was not accident, and 28
surrounded by a more people died
containment within a few weeks
structure, so the
explosions and the from radiation
subsequent fire sent poisoning. Long
a giant plume of term, several
radioactive material thousand more
into the atmosphere people were put at
and was spread out risk for cancer.
by the winds.
Fukushima Daiichi Emergency cooling So far, four of the six Not yet known.
Date: March 11 systems at the plant nuclear reactors are
Place: Fukushima prefecture, started to fail after a in trouble. In Unit
about 150 miles north of Tokyo massive quake and Nos. 1 and 3,
on Japan's northeastern coast tsunami knocked out explosions occurred
electricity at the from a buildup of
facility. Workers have hydrogen gas. These
experienced were not nuclear
numerous problems blasts. Experts
maintaining water suspect the nuclear
levels in the three rods inside these two
reactors that were in reactors have started
operation when the to melt but have not
quake struck. Water is breached the
AP needed to keep the containment vessel,
nuclear fuel rods which is designed to
inside the core from keep radioactive
overheating. Officials material from
suspect rods have escaping.
melted in multiple
reactors. Unit No. 2 poses a
bigger threat: An
explosion may have
caused a breach in
the containment
vessel, which may
allow radioactive
steam or water to

Unit No. 4, which

had been closed
down for
maintenance before
the quake hit, caught
on fire. The fire
occurred near a pond
where spent fuel
rods were left to cool
off. Officials believe
the fire caused a
radiation leak near
the pool. The
challenge is keeping
the rods — which
are still hot —
covered in water so
that they don’t
overheat and release
more radioactive

Source: USNRC, World Nuclear Association